Traditionally, the international community has regarded Mali as a success story and a pillar of democracy in the unstable region of West Africa. Since its first multi-party elections in 1992, Mali has regularly held presidential, legislative and municipal elections – which were deemed an indication of the democratic maturity and stability of the country. However, the military coup d'état of 2012, which resulted in the removal of President Amadou Toumani Touré and the subsequent outbreak of civil war, has brought to question the country’s very democratic credentials.
It is not the aim of this paper to discuss the events that led to Mali’s political demise, but rather to examine the determination of both local and international leaders in holding elections as soon as possible in the aftermath of the civil war. It is believed that these proposed elections will assist in restoring not only peace and unity to the country, but also Mali’s legacy as a pillar of democracy. This paper addresses the fact that Mali was never a true democracy, and so elections alone will not be enough to restore peace in the country - let alone restore its democratic credentials. This paper therefore highlights the value of elections in emerging democracies and post-conflict countries, as well as the importance of the timing of elections. Moreover, the discussion contextualises the environment in which the proposed elections will take place, analyses the link between elections and political stability, and highlights the potential dangers in holding elections too soon.
Mali - a failed democracy
Mali officially became a democracy in 1991, when Moussa Traotré’s 23-year military regime was overthrown in what is now known as the ‘March Revolution’. Dissatisfied with Traotré’s corrupt government and the poor economic standing of the country, students led the pro-democracy movement against Traotré in the capital city, Bamako, in March 1991. Traotré, in an attempt to quell the protests, ordered the arrest of the peaceful student demonstrators. However, in the overzealous repression of the protests, dozens of students were killed, which inspired the now ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré to lead a military coup against Traotré. At the end of the March Revolution, Touré returned the country to civilian rule and was hailed as a “soldier for democracy.”(2)
In 1992, the transitional authority, in consultation with the legalised opposition parties and the various civil society groups in the country, drafted a constitution that was promulgated on 29 January 1992. The new constitution instituted a multi-party political system, provided for the division of power and prescribed a five year presidential term limit, whilst simultaneously stipulating that the president can only serve two terms.(3) Alpha Oumar Konaré subsequently became the first democratically elected president of Mali until he was replaced by Touré in 2002. Touré remained in power until the March 2012 military coup led by Captain Amadou Sonogo. Sonogo capitalised on the growing dissatisfaction of Malians in relation to Tourés’s consensus politics, his inability to address structural and social inequalities as well as to contain the increasing dominance of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaward (MNLA), a secular Tuareg movement (hereafter referred to as the ‘Tuaregs’), and the Islamist secessionist rebel groups in the northern regions.
Despite achieving various democratic milestones, Mali’s democracy has always been on shaky ground. This observation is based on the fact that Mali’s ‘success’ as a democratic state has always been shadowed by the partial fulfilment of democratic principles. While from 1991 to 2011, the country experienced rapid economic growth, relative social stability (4) and a sense of political progression, there was also the steady decline of democratic values and growing disillusionment with the political dispensation of the country. Touré’s consensus politics based on local traditions of dialogue, coupled with the co-option of every politician, spared Mali from post-election conflicts, while simultaneously hindering the existence of an effective opposition.(5) Elections during this 20-year period were also characterised by frequent boycotts, low voter turnout, and deemed to lack credibility from the perspective of Malians.
The events of 2012 therefore exposed the fact that Mali was a country that had the veneer of democratic legitimacy and had failed to effectively consolidate its previous democratic gains. In dealing with the military coup and threat to Mali’s territorial integrity, Mali’s political leaders and the international community will now have to come to terms with the fact that there has been no real democracy in the country. Some academics and political analysts have even come to state that democracy never really existed in the country,(6) and that the granting of Mali’s democratic status was due to low standards at which democracies are judged across the African continent.(7) The legitimacy of previous elections have also been called to question as they have been described as “...mere parodies. For those who were supposedly competing for popular votes were making secret deals to put in power whoever could best defend their interests. The play was so well acted that the world praised ‘Malian democracy.’”(8)
Without addressing the failure of democracy in the country, the political crisis has been presented as a three-way battle between the ideals of democracy, the military and extremist tyranny.(9) Regional bodies, such as the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), along with the international community, have consequently adopted a two-phased strategy to restore peace and democracy in the country. The first phase has been to regain the territorial control of the northern region,(10) whilst the second phase involves the commencement of elections in July 2013. It is this call for elections that requires attention as the call goes to the heart of the value of elections in post-conflict countries and the role that elections can play in ensuring peace and stability in a country. In this regard, it is now universally accepted that elections are the first step to democratisation and that “they can be a powerful catalyst for better governance, greater security and human development.”(11) Mali’s future therefore rests on the success or failure of these proposed elections.
The chicken-egg conundrum and Mali’s elections
While the various missions and military interventions have brought back some semblance of law and order to the country, Mali still has a long way to go to achieving sustainable stability and regaining its democratic credentials. However, internal and external stakeholders are of the view that there should be elections as soon as possible, as it is believed that the holding of elections will simultaneously assist in effectively ending the civil war and helping the country transition to a time of peace. While holding elections is necessary, embarking on them too soon presents many risks. In assessing the current political situation, the call for elections gives rise to the ‘chicken-egg’ scenario – in other words, should political reforms precede or succeed an electoral exercise?
During the recent AU summit in Ethiopia on 27 January 2013, Mali’s interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, announced that the country will hold a general election by the end of July.(12) This was later confirmed by Mali’s Minister for Territorial Administration, Decentralisation and Regional Development, Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, that the first round of presidential elections will take place on 7 July 2013, during which the winner must garner 50% of the vote to win. Legislative elections will take place on 21 July 2013, along with a second round of the presidential vote if a run-off is required.(13)
However, the interim government is itself divided as to whether there should be elections at all. Yehia Ag Mohmed Ali, the Minister of Tourism, for example, has stated that “progress must be made at the political level parallel to the military intervention,”(14) whilst other members of the interim parliament, such as Kassoum Tapo, have suggested that the current government should wait until 2014 to organise elections to allow time to focus on the political roadmap.(15) Given these circumstances, the question remains - how can there be elections when there is no consensus on when elections should take place nor any permanent governmental institutions to conduct them?
As it stands, there have been some preparations that have been made for the proposed elections. However, there remain many unresolved issues regarding power sharing agreements among political parties (including Tuareg rebels and Islamists), the incomplete electoral register, and the registering of Malian refugees. The biggest unresolved issue in Mali is the fact that the majority of its population is illiterate, which would undermine the credibility of elections. Nevertheless, despite these concerns, there is an unstated pressure for Mali to resume elections to ensure that the country regains its democratic credentials and tap into desperately needed foreign aid funds.
Whether or not there can be elections without preceding political reforms, will depend on whether certain minimum conditions exist in a particular political context. As a general rule, the following three conditions need to be met before elections may be risked in post-conflict countries:
- A sufficiently secure environment is the sine qua non for organising and carrying out elections successfully. The majority of combatants and militias should therefore have been disarmed (or at least reliable pacified) and sufficient progress made in building of a ‘new’ army and police force;
- The administrative and communication infrastructures of the respective country must have been re-established to a degree that they allow for a sufficiently smooth conduct, not only of the elections themselves but also related activities, like voter registration, civic education, etc.;
- The justice system and police must have reached a degree of functioning that enables them to deal with cases of fraud, abuse and other legal issues related to the proper conduct of elections; otherwise the opposition parties and the population at large will have no confidence in the fairness of the elections....The danger of a relapse into fighting [will] be eminent.(16)
These conditions highlight the need to appreciate the various challenges in holding elections during or after conflicts. In Mali’s circumstance, the above conditions are not necessarily present or fully realised.
On the one hand, violence in the country seems to have ceased for the time being, which assists in the successful commencement of elections. On the other hand, however, the issues relating to the second and third conditions remain outstanding, as the required institutions have not been finalised or established. This is compounded by the fact that political stakeholders in the country are regarded as incompetent, reluctant to let go of their power, or are merely excluded. In this regard, the interim government is preoccupied with its individual members rather than issues of governance of the country,(17) while the military has shown signs that it is not going to easily relinquish its power to civilian authorities. Moreover, there have been no attempts to include the Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups into the future governmental structures of Mali. It should also be noted that Mali, in making its transition to peace, cannot resort to old political practices, as it was the pre-coup conditions that resulted in the failure of democracy in the country.(18)
Establishing the existence of the abovementioned conditions is therefore just one part of the process in using elections as a means of transition out of conflict and reaching a political resolution. It is admitted however, that it is often difficult to establish minimum electoral conditions as it takes time to build such institutions and capabilities. In the case of Mali, where there seems to be a rush to resolve the political crisis, whether there will be peace and democracy will depend on the very timing of the elections.
Timing is everything
The timing of elections is a polarising issue among academics and political analysts. While there is agreement that elections are important in emerging democracies and post-conflict countries, there is no agreement regarding the timing or sequencing of elections. Generally, the timing debate is based on two arguments.(19) Firstly, there is the belief that in the democratisation process and post-conflict resolution situation, elections should be the immediate goal to establish democracy in a country. Secondly, there is the argument that holding elections too soon can result in the elections being a catalyst for further violence. However, there are two correlating factors to be considered regarding the issue of timing - the sequencing of elections and the establishment of a legitimate ruling government and sovereign state.
The sequencing of elections relates to the decision as to whether national elections (presidential and/or legislative elections) should take place before local elections. This is a less contested issue, as it would seem that most academics and political analysts agree that holding local elections first would be a more prudent start to any electoral exercise. It is accepted that the “stakes in terms of power and wealth to be distributed are less dramatic than on the national level and, even more important, [as in most African countries] 70% to 80% of the population lives in rural areas, far removed from national capitals, where the big power game takes place. Therefore, local elections are more relevant for their day-to-day lives than national ones.”(20)
The second correlating debate in this regard is that of the legitimacy of the ruling government and the territorial sovereignty of a state. In most post conflict countries, it is standard practice for international peace-keeping and state building organisations to insist on conducting elections in a country. The elections serve as a tool for conflict transition and the establishment of an effective government. Those working in the field require that their local networks, particularly the government and its supporting institutions, are supported by the country’s population.(21) Holding of elections are then the only means to prove legitimacy of the ruling government and to protect the territorial sovereignty of a state.
Mali presents the perfect case study into how the above arguments will play out. The timing of elections, type of elections and the issues of legitimacy and sovereignty have been decided. National elections will take place in July to finalise the country’s leadership and its governmental institutions, and reinforce the legitimacy of the government and territorial integrity of the country. However, it is still to be seen whether the decisions that have been made are suitable. In assessing the political crisis in Mali, it is argued, for example, that holding elections so soon after the defeat of the Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups will result in a continued power struggle in the country. It has also further been implied that not enough time has passed to establish the necessary institutions and mechanisms to ensure peace inducing and successful elections in the country.
The timing of elections must also be appropriate. Where the timing of the elections is wrong and the proposed elections take place, these elections could sow the seeds for future conflict.(22) This is evidenced by elections held in Angola (1992), Liberia (1997) and Cote d’Ivoire (2002) – in all these countries elections and their results spurred on violence. The commencement of the proposed elections would therefore only lock in an already existing political pattern that is fraught with corruption, distrust in the electoral process, and conflict.
Elections have become synonymous with democracy and have been universally accepted as one of the necessary steps towards peace and stability in a post conflict country. However, the benefits created by elections go beyond the existence of democracy, and go to the heart of issues concerning peace and security, respect for the rule of law and human rights and development (23). Mali is not the first country to have a failed democracy and it will certainly not be the last, particularly in Africa. The political crisis in the country provides the perfect case study to highlight the value of elections in post-conflict countries and the importance of the timing of elections. While it is encouraging that both national and international leaders agree that elections need to be held, this call for elections has failed to take into consideration the negative effects of having ill-timed elections, as well as the difficulties in organising elections in a post-conflict country. Notably, Mali does not have the required institutional mechanisms to ensure successful elections. While one can appreciate the need to take advantage of the relative stability the country is enjoying at the moment, one cannot fail to recognise that rushing the electoral process will not be beneficial to the country. There are therefore still a number of issues that the interim government and international bodies assisting in the situation need to address. These issues include: the restoration of Mali as a single sovereign state; the consolidation of the existing interim governmental institutions (as imperfect as they are); the establishment of a more inclusive political strategy; and education of the Malian polity with regards to the electoral processes.
Written by Kutloano Tshabalala (1)
(1) Contact Kutloano Tshabalala through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Elections and Democracy Unit ( firstname.lastname@example.org). This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Keri Leicher and was edited by Liezl Stretton.
(2) ‘Mali profile’, BBC News Africa, 29 January 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(3) ‘Elections in Mali – political profile’, African Elections Database, http://africanelections.tripod.com.
(4) Gensler, K., ‘Mali eyes post-conflict elections’, DW, 31 January 2013, http://www.dw.de.
(5) Lewis, D., ‘Analysis: Mali: From democracy poster child to broken state’, Reuters, 24 April 2012, http://www.reuters.com.
(6) Penney, J., ‘Mali’s model democracy myth’, Think Africa Press, 8 February 2013, http://thinkafricapress.com.
(8) ‘Moussa Konaté: The coup d’ d'état was foreseeable’, Translated by Bruce Whitehouse, Jeune Afrique, 24 March 2012, http://forums.ssrc.org.
(9) Peterson, B. J., ‘The Malian political crisis: Taking grievances seriously’, African Arguments, 27 March 2012, http://africanarguments.org.
(10) ‘Mali coup leaders unveil new constitution’, Aljazeera, 30 March 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com.
(11) ‘Deeping democracy: A strategy for improving the integrity of elections worldwide’, Report of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, September 2012, http://www.global-commission.org.
(12) Kaf, K., ‘Mali could hold elections in July – President Traoré’, Africa Review, 31 January 2013, http://www.africareview.com.
(13) ‘UN: Mali must start election work now’, News24, 30 January 2013, http://www.news24.com.
(14) Gensler, K., ‘Mali eyes post-conflict elections’, DW, 31 January 2013, http://www.dw.de.
(15) Kaf, K., ‘Mali could hold elections in July – President Traoré’, Africa Review, 31 January 2013, http://www.africareview.com.
(16) Minimum conditions articulated in Kühne, W., ‘The role of elections in emerging democracies and post-conflict countries: Key issues, lessons learned and dilemmas’, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung International Policy Analysis, August 2010, http://library.fes.de.
(17) Gensler, K., ‘Mali eyes post-conflict elections’, DW, 31 January 2013, http://www.dw.de.
(18) Signé, L., ‘Mali’s atrocities began when it lost its democracy’, New York Times, 14 January 2013, http://www.nytimes.com.
(19) Brancati, D. and Snyder, J.L., ‘Time to kill: The impact of election timing on post-conflict stability’, 6 February 2011, http://brancati.wustl.edu.
(20) Kühne, W., ‘The role of elections in emerging democracies and post-conflict countries: Key issues, lessons learned and dilemmas’, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung International Policy Analysis, August 2010, http://library.fes.de.
(22) Cheibub, J.A. and Hays, J., ‘Elections and civil war in Africa’, http://visionsinmethodology.org.
(23) ‘Deeping democracy: A strategy for improving the integrity of elections worldwide’, Report of the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, September 2012, http://www.global-commission.org.